By Stephen Fox
Thank you Marti for the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Where we hear the story of Jesus walking on the turbulent sea.
I must say I have found this story perplexing, unsettling. Walking on water? It has always seemed somewhat ridiculous and unbelievable.
So what are we to make of this story? what meanings can we take from this walking on water, first by Jesus and then by Peter?
I will offer Biblical and historical contexts as well as standard interpretations of the story to give a grounding for our understanding. And then share my own more recent thoughts about what is happening here.
This story occurs toward the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and
is told in three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark and John, but not Luke. In all three Gospels the story of walking on the water follows the story of Jesus feeding the 5000, which occurred in a desert place, a part of Bethsaida which sits along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has withdrawn there, by boat, after he heard of the death of John the Baptist. The crowd of 5000 followed him on foot.
After the miraculous feeding of the 5000, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in a boat to sail back to the place from where they just recently came.
They leave shore somewhere just west of Capernaum, headed just up the coast a few miles. We are not sure exactly what the destination is, as the three Gospels are not consistent on this matter. Assuming they left from the vicinity of Capernaum and were returning to Bethsaida, it is a short distance. Remember, the 5000 made the trip on foot and presumably returned the way they came. According to Google Maps, you could make the trip by driving on Route 87 in 10 to 15 minutes. It was a short trip.
However, life is difficult and voyages rarely go as planned. And such is the case here. Things do not go well for these fishermen who have become Jesus’ disciples. The Sea of Galilee, which is referred to in different places in the Bible as alternately a lake or as a sea, is a fresh water lake and the source of the River Jordan, and sits 700 feet below sea level. It is roughly 65 miles east from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Because the Sea of Galilee sits so low and surrounded by hot desert, the warm air rises and is replaced by cooler air blowing in from the Mediterranean. At times these winds can be quite powerful, blowing in from the west, across the sea and crash into the cliffs of the
Golan Heights running along the eastern shore, making for difficult navigation and a difficult passage in a small boat.
And so it was on that evening when the Disciples boarded their vessel and set sail. Matthew, in his description, says, the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. They are blown off course, into open water. Those of you who venture forth upon the water, know that a contrary wind and sea can make a supposedly short trip long, difficult and uncomfortable. And so they spend a miserable night in a small boat on rough seas.
Shortly before dawn Jesus leaves the solitude he found on shore and goes out to them, walking on the water. When the disciples see him walking upon the storm tossed sea, they are terrified. They cry out in fear. “It’s a ghost,” Jesus immediately responds to their fright and identifies himself, saying to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter is somewhat doubtful, and says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” Jesus says.
Peter gets down out of the boat, walks on the water coming toward Jesus. But when he sees the wind, he is afraid and, beginning to sink, he cries out, “Lord, saveme!”
Immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls Peter up. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “Why did you doubt?”
Jesus and Peter climb into the boat, the wind dies down and the disciples worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
A number of interpretations of this story have been put forth.
Some suggest that the story establishes Jesus’ dominance over nature, because he was able to walk on the water far away from shore on rough seas. The details regarding the boat being a long way from shore and the portrayal of Peter sinking are intended as a confirmation of depth of the water.
Also, the story is interpreted as instrumental in asserting the divinity of Jesus among early Christians. Clearly, walking on water is only within the power of God the Father who is willing to share this divine power with his Son, thus establishing the divinity of Jesus. Both interpretations can be viewed as fulfillment of the words found in Job which was read today.
The story is also interpreted as a metaphor. Jesus sends the disciples on their way to cross the lake, and they are hit by the storm. Jesus stays behind, promises that he will see them soon, and climbs to a high place to pray. When things are looking bad on the boat, Jesus goes to the disciples and rescues them and all ends well. Similarly. Jesus leaves his disciples following his crucifixion promising to return, which he does to support them in their struggles following his death. Even when things are at their worst, Jesus returns, calms the seas and saves his followers from death. The metaphor is meant to comfort a community in need.
But what about Peter? Let’s look at his story, and consider what it might mean.
When Jesus appears to the disciples struggling against the storm, they think it is a ghost until Jesus says, “It is I.” Peter is not so sure, and can’t quite believe that it is Jesus standing upon the waves, and says to Jesus, “If you are who you say you are, call me out of the boat so that I too might walk upon the water.” Jesus does just that, calling Peter out of the boat. Peter steps out and at first all goes well. But then Peter becomes aware of the gravity and precariousness of his situation. The wind is blowing hard, the waves are high and they are far from land. Peter must have said to himself something like, “What am I doing out here? This was a stupid move, I better get back to the boat.”
And in that moment of doubt, he begins to sink. He must have sensed that death was close at hand. He cries out to Jesus to save him from the certain death which Jesus does. They return to the boat, the seas are calmed and they make their way to a safe landing.
Peter has two moments of doubt, one in the boat when Jesus is first seen and the second when Peter ventures out of the boat. At first he can’t believe his own eyes and is skeptical, then he is afraid, and is near death. Jesus pulls him out of the water and back from death, but only after Peter’s moment of doubt and his crisis of faith. It is only then that Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God.
The message here may will be that doubt is a necessary precursor to developing a deeper faith.
Many theologians have talked about “the path of descent,” the idea that the spiritual life will eventually require us to descend into unknowing and doubt, to descend into loss of certainty, into a process that feels like dying. It is the necessary process by which we are stripped of the things that get in the way of deeper faith: our know-it-all arrogance, our ego and self will. The Christian mystics and mystics of other religions realized that this perplexity, uncertainty, and unknowing are essential for coming to grips with, and need to let go of, our need to be in control and always be right.
The mystics talk about their experiences of desolation in which God feels absent, a period in which one can’t see or understand what is going on, a feeling of being lost and close to death. They talk about the need to let go of one’s beliefs which only happens through questioning them and doubting their value or veracity in order to develop a deeper faith.
Take a moment now to reflect. When have you felt that God was absent in your life? Perhaps you may have found yourself questioning a fundamental belief that left you feeling disoriented or confused. Moments of doubt may occur over a long period of time and require even more time to resolve.
A moment of doubt for me came following the events of 9/11. The tragedy of that day was followed a few days later by a personal tragedy. I descended into a dark place and left the church I was attending. My beliefs were shaken; I was angry, fearful, isolated and numb. Many years passed before I returned to church when Patricia and I came here on an Easter Sunday. My attendance that day was reluctant, but a slow process of spiritual healing began and has continued.
Brian McLaren, a theologian with the Center for Action and Contemplation talks about belief, doubt and faith. He calls faith before doubt as correct belief and faith after doubt as compassion,
Faith before doubt is correct belief, faith after doubt is compassion.
The terms faith and belief are often used interchangeably and can lead to some confusion. Allen Watts a twentieth century philosopher of eastern religions separates the two terms and sees them as nearly opposites of each other. The word “belief” comes from the Old English word “lief” which means dear or beloved. Allen Watts connects belief to this notion, that a belief is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” it to be or would love it to be. The believer will open his or her mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his or her preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be , however uncomfortable or frightening it may be. Faith has no preconceptions, it is a plunge into the darkness of the unknown, a walk on the water if you will.
Belief clings, faith lets go.
Belief is grounded in self preservation, faith is founded on love.
Peter steps off the boat and experiences doubt, fear and a near death. He is saved by the hand of Jesus, and thereafter, he becomes a man of deeper faith.
Jesus asks Peter, “Why did you doubt?” Which I have always interpreted as an admonishment not to doubt at all. But perhaps it is a simple question which encouraged Peter, and us, to reflect on the process of doubt, and the relationship between doubt and faith.
Richard Rohr says that faith is an ability to integrate doubt to hold the tension between what we’ve been taught and what we’ve come to know as true. He contends when grounded in love, doubt does not represent a step backward but is a necessary condition for any movement forward.
Let’s go back to the moment that you were thinking about when you experienced doubt or confusion, when God seemed distant and you questioned what you believed in. Think about how you came through that time. How did that experience change you and your faith? Hopefully in those moments there is an opening of our hearts to a loving God and to a deeper faith.
We will end with this prayer:
God of infinite love that surpasses all understanding, we are grateful for the moments of doubt we experience. Your love shows us that doubt is not the death of faith. It is instead the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond old beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding love that is our salvation.